ACROSS the River Lee from the northside of the city at the Christy Ring Bridge and it’s hard to miss the giant banner advertising the upcoming summer production of Singin’ in the Rain at Cork Opera House.
‘Proudly made in Cork’ it proclaims, a sentiment that could also apply to the landmark building it stretches across.
Like the city, the Opera House has experienced many changes and faced many challenges but has endured to occupy a special place in the affections of its citizens.
This year, it celebrates 160 years in existence, a momentous milestone being marked by a gala concert tonight.
To mark the anniversary the Opera House has also released a new book, Backstage Pass, a year-long, behind the scenes look at four productions, from Grease to the Christmas panto, all taken by Cork-based photographer Miki Barlok.
The venue began life as the Athenaeum, opening in May 1855, later becoming the Munster Hall in 1873. Among its illustrious visitors were Charles Stewart Parnell and Charles Dickens.
On the occasion of the famous author’s first visit, the Cork Examiner of September 1, 1858, reported: “The house was well filled all through, though the cram in the galleries showed intellectual entertainment to be most favoured among the democracy.
"Almost precisely at the time appointed, the distinguished visitor made his appearance, and was greeted by a hearty cheer, which he cordially acknowledged.”
The main theatre in Cork at the time was the Theatre Royal, now the site of the GPO. When that was
taken over by the postal authorities, a group of people got together and purchased the Munster Hall, opening it as the Theatre Royal and Cork Opera House on September 17, 1877.
One of the first artists to perform at the venue was the legendary American actress Sarah Bernhardt.
The liner on which she was sailing was late arriving at Cobh, so the company and its accoutrements were transferred to a tug which sailed up the Lee, with Ms Bernhardt disembarking at the quay steps across from the Opera House. The show went on, just an hour late.
ERFORMERS such as the Carl Rosa Company and the Moody-Manners Opera Company introduced the people of Cork to productions including Carmen, Aida and Maritana by Waterford composer William Vincent Wallace.
Frank Benson’s Shakespearean Company was also a regular visitor, performing plays including Othello, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, as recalled by Cork author Seán Ó Faoláin, who grew up in Half Moon Street, a stone’s throw from the opera house.
In a radio interview, he recalled how, off stage, the performers played a defining role in his childhood.
“My mother kept boarders from the theatre, the Cork Opera House, in our house in Half Moon Street. This brought the theatre very much into the house. It often was difficult for me to distinguish between imagination and reality….
"When I saw a fellow acting as Second Gravedigger in Hamlet on Tuesday night and saw him coming in for his supper afterwards, it was rather difficult for me to distinguish, as I say, between the fact and the fancy.”
In the RTÉ radio documentary ‘Belle of Ould Cork’, broadcast in 1985, the late historian Seán Beecher, who also grew up near the opera house, spoke about the excitement generated by the arrival of the performers at Glanmire station.
“People would have come down to the railway station to greet them, as they would have done with an All-Ireland winning team coming back on a Monday night.
"On occasion, the carriages would have been sent down to meet the performers and it is said the people actually unhitched the horses, got between the shafts themselves and would take them out the Glanmire yard, up the street up by St Patrick’s, up McCurtain St, over the bridge into Bridge St, through Patrick’s St, up to the Victoria Hotel, pulling the carts and the singers inside them…. the opera singers would sing from the Victoria Hotel to the crowds below.”
According to Beecher, the atmosphere altered irrevocably after the outbreak of the First World War.
“World War I destroyed the illusions of so many people and things were so tough afterwards that it was different. People’s horizons were broadening out too at that stage.
"And you had 1916, which began to change people from opera to nationalism.”
However, opera still retained its appeal for many Cork citizens and the art form did not have the elitist associations which it later acquired.
In his memoir Stone Mad, Seamus Murphy recalled the excitement among his workmates when the Grand Opera came to Cork: “All the men went and the apprentices were brought along on Saturday to the matinee. Bits of opera were hummed, whistled and sung all day, and the various basses, tenors and baritones compared.”
The opera house faced many challenges in the 1920s and 1930s but the appointment of John Daly as manager in 1935 had a positive impact on the venue, with the productions of Gilbert and Sullivan shows by Christian Brothers College fondly remembered.
Michael McLiammoir, Hilton Edwards and Anew McMaster were among other renowned performers who attracted large audiences. After Daly’s death, Bill Twomey was appointed manager.
He would preside over one of the most dramatic events in the Opera House’s history, the fire that razed it to the ground on the night of Monday, December 12, 1955.
“We did a complete refurbishing of it the week before it burned down and it was in really beautiful order the night it burned, glistening with all the old splendour, the gilt paint and the red cushioning…. Two hours later it was gone,” recalled Twomey.
“It was built entirely of wood, it used to give the local fire brigade chief nightmares because he knew if ever there was a bit of fire or trouble, it would go up like matchsticks, which it did in the end.”
One fireman who tackled the blaze recalled: “I went in under the iron stairs right into the bar and the corks were popping from the bottles of stout.”
The following day, the Cork Examiner reported: ‘The final curtain has fallen. The ‘Cork Opera House’ is no more. A hundred years of stage history has come to an end.
Never had the last moments of any drama, played on this stage, such an audience as last night’s farewell one.’
However, as damaging as the fire was to the Opera House, the results could have been even more catastrophic. As one onlooker observed, “If it hadn’t been so wet, a lot of Cork would have gone up that night”.
Almost immediately, a huge fundraising effort began to fund the cost of building a replacement venue.
Among the enthusiastic fundraisers were Ted Crosbie of the Cork Examiner and the late Charlie Hennessy who would later become a noted chairman of the Opera House.
Eventually, a decade after it succumbed to the flames, the new opera house rose like a phoenix from the ashes and was officially opened by President Éamon de Valera on October 30, 1966.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the venue continued to draw large attendances, especially for the annual Jazz Festival, which was then televised and featured performances from greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich and the recently departed BB King.
Another big draw were the popular ‘summer revels’, variety shows featuring legendary local performers such as The Montforts, Michael Twomey, Billa O’Connell, Paddy Comerford and Dick Healy.
However, in the Nineties and Noughties, the Opera House struggled to attract the audiences of its halcyon days.
It faced severe financial challenges when the recession hit resulting in a temporary closure in the summer of 2010.
Current CEO Mary Hickson took the reins shortly afterwards. Hickson, a native of Fermoy, Co Cork, was very much aware of respecting the past of the venue while also securing its future.
“The older generation, their eyes light up when they talk about the Opera House, like they own a piece of it. My wish was to instil that into the younger generation,” she says.
“It is a civic space and it shouldn’t feel unwelcoming, like it’s only for a certain kind of person. We opened up the foyer, with the café — we wanted to let people stay here all day with their laptops, make them feel like it’s their space.”
When Hickson took the helm at the Opera House, she already had some valuable hands-on experience under her belt.
“I pulled pints behind the bar when I was in college. I was a barmaid here for three years, in the front and in the Half Moon.
"I still fall in every now and then when it gets busy, you should see the faces of the bar staff,” she laughs.
Hickson says she was eager to freshen up the programme when she took over and her inclination was to reassess the cherished panto. She soon changed her mind.
“Panto was not a tradition in my family although loads of people and friends would talk about it. When I came in first, I was like, ‘We have to sort that out, I won’t be having any of that’.
But when I watched them doing a dress rehearsal for Snow White, I bawled my eyes out. Ever since, I am the panto’s number one fan.”
Hickson credits the late lamented director Bryan Flynn and the in-house production team with helping to secure the popularity of the panto among a new generation.
“Bryan and the team here raised the bar for panto. I did a whistle-stop tour of pantos around the country this year and we are by far the best.”
Flynn was also instrumental in bringing high-quality productions to the stage during the summer season, beginning with the hugely successful Sound of Music.
“That was incredible — we had 98% occupancy, it went on for six weeks, and 45% of that audience were from outside of Cork.
"Bryan played a big role in the turnaround of the Opera House, helping us get recognition as a production house as well as a receiving house.
“The shows we make ourselves, from the ground up, they’re the ones we have to work most on but there’s a great sense of achievement.”
Hickson was also keen to expand the appeal of the Opera House to younger audiences all year round, with performances of shows such as Peppa Pig, the Gruffalo and Ben and Holly proving hugely popular.
“I was having a bad day in the office and I came downstairs and the Ben and Holly show was on. I saw a little girl, I’d say she was four, and she was rattling off all the shows she had been to — her eyes were popping out of her head, she was so happy.
"The Opera House was part of her life. It made everything worthwhile, I thought ‘I could walk out that door and my job is done’. I’ll never forget that moment, it was really special.”
One of the most talked-about productions of recent times was last year’s performance of Ballyturk by Enda Walsh, a playwright with strong links to Cork.
It also brought native son Cillian Murphy back to the Cork stage almost two decades after his appearance in Corcadorca’s groundbreaking Disco Pigs, also written by Walsh. Hickson says Ballyturk was one of the highlights of her tenure.
“It was incredible, unbelievable. You could see the people who had been ‘Ballyturked’, going around with bewildered heads on them.
"People had vastly different interpretations, they were leaving perplexed or bawling their eyes out. We sold a lot of brandy and whiskey in the bar those nights,” she laughs.
HILE Hickson has brought plenty of internationally- recognised names to the Opera House stage she says it is just as important to acknowledge the local talent that has kept it in operation for 160 years.
“We are just as good as anyone else, and we should be cocky about it. The gala performance for the 160th anniversary is all about embracing and elevating Cork. It’s going to be a really emotional event, really special. It’s about our past, present and future.”
Hickson, who will be leaving at the end of her agreed five-year term in the autumn, has left her mark on the Opera House but there is no doubt it has also left its mark on her.
“I can imagine walking past when I leave and touching the wall to make sure it’s okay. I will definitely leave a piece of myself here.”
She is confident about the future of the Opera House and its important role in the life of the city.
“Cork people love being exposed to different things and having their minds broadened.
“As our new marketing manager put it so well, they don’t just want the Opera House, they need it,” she says.
That need has kept the iconic venue at the cultural heart of Cork for 160 years and will hopefully do so for the next 160 — a true cause for celebration.
Pictures courtesy of ‘Backstage Pass’ by Miki Barlok, on sale at Cork Opera House and Vibes and Scribes.